Operations at NMDC mines in Chhattisgarh may have begun on June 12 after the adivasis called off their stir but the whole episode could still turn out to be another Niyamgiri.
The adivasis were protesting the proposed mining of a hill, considered sacred. The hill was to be mined by NCL, a joint venture between NMDC and the state's Mineral Development Corporation (CMDC). NCL had given the contract of the project to Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL), the flagship company of the $11 billion Adani Group.
The issue is similar to what had forced Vedanta Resources to back out from mining the Niyamgiri hills, in Odisha. While Niyamgiri was the abode of Niyam Raja, the hill in Chattisgarh's Dantewada district is where Goddess Pithor Rani resides, believe the adivasis.
While the conflict adds one more layer to the nature/adivasis rights vs development debate, its resolution may also set the tone for projects that involve land acquisition and rehabilitation.
Nearly 10,000 adivasis had gathered in Dantewada on June 7, to protest the mining plan. The hill is part of the resourceful Bailadila Range, which contributes to almost 70 percent of production of NMDC, the country's largest iron ore miner.
The hill is supposed to have reserves that can generate 10 million tons of iron ore a year.
The adivasis alleged, says a report by The Hindu, that false Gram Sabhas were arranged to get consent for the mining. According to the Forest Rights Act, no project can be taken up unless approved by the local Gram Sabhas.
The protesters relented after the state government assured that a committee will submit a report within 15 days, and will look for a resolution.
Vedanta Resources was forced to drop plans to mine Niyamgiri hills, which have rich reserves of bauxite. The mining project was important for the company's alumina refinery in the neighbouring Lanjigarh district. Without a captive mine, the viability of the refinery was in question.
While the Environment Ministry in 2010 declined to give clearance for the project, later in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the hill can't be mined without the approval from Gram Sabhas.
Eventually, 10 villages voted against the project in Gram Sabhas, and a request by the state's mining corporation to hold voting again, was squashed.
The controversy had got global attention as Vedanta Resources was then listed on the London Stock Exchange.
While the two projects have similar challenges, the plan in Chhattisgarh has another issue.
It is not just the adivasis who are objecting the project. Even workers unions are against it. Their contention is that the contract to AEL, a private company, should be revoked, especially when a public sector unit can do the same work.
“When the NMDC has been operating the mines here for 60 years, where is the need for a corporate entity?” The Hindu quoted Rajesh Sandhu, Secretary of the local branch of All India Trade Union Congress.
The NCL though has claimed that the project will not impact the shrine of Pithor Rani.
Now eyes are on the government report, which is expected to come by the end of the month.